Brief History of the Music from Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao


Human civilization on the ABC islands began around 600 A.D. with the arrival of Arowak Indians of the Caiquetios tribe from the coastal regions of South America. They lived from agriculture, fishing and hunting. Shortly after the Spanish “discovered” the islands in 1499 most of the original inhabitants were taken as slaves to Hispaniola and other Spanish colonies. In 1513 they named the ABC islands Islas Inútiles (Useless Islands) because no precious metals or natural riches were found. But their strategic position and Curaçao’s natural harbor proved to be the most valuable assets. The Dutch conquered the ABC islands from Spain in 1634. They did so to obtain salt for their own herring industry. Soon after the Dutch West Indian Company was founded and a few plantations were set up. The arid climate of the ABC islands made large scale plantations unfeasible. Eventually the Dutch started to trade and by 1660 Curaçao had become the center of the West Indian slave trade. The West Indian company took over the principle Portuguese trading stations on the west coast of Africa, buying enslaved Africans and transporting them to Curaçao where they were sold to the Spanish, Portuguese and British colonies all over the Caribbean. There are several scattered testaments of the slave age. On Bonaire they include the slave huts south of the capital of Kralendijk on the ocean shore adjoining the large salt pans where slaves slept after toiling for long hours harvesting salt for their masters. In 1999 a large bronze statue called “Desenkadena” (Break the Chains) was unveiled on the very spot where the dead bodies of Tula and Karpata, leaders of the famous slave rebellion of 1795 were displayed to deter additional insurrections and the Museum Kurá Holanda ( opened its doors at the site of the slave-holding yard in the Otrabanda district of the capital of Willemstad. Emblazoned in the local language of Papiamentu (see below) on the outer wall of this museum of the history of Black suffering are the words of the Curaçaon poet Nydia Ecury – whose English translation reads “In the garden of your soul, weed out rage, so as to plant peace. Let not woes of old enslave you anew.”

The Music

Located some 35 to 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela this little archipelago of arid, semi-desert isles may be well off the beaten hurricane path, but they have historically been and still are at the crossroads of much cultural traffic. Antillean music can be subdivided into three major categories – music of European origin, African origin and contemporary music of the surrounding region of South American and the Caribbean. European influence came from the Austrian waltz, the Spanish danza via Puerto Rico, the Bohemian polka, Polish mazurka, French quadrille, chamber orchestras and the Kaha di orgel (box-shaped street organ) originating from Berlin through Italy, Spain and Venezuela, all of which influenced the Curaçaon waltz. Many of these rhythms were creolized in acoustic string bands with percussion known as “tipicos”. Tambú, muzik di zumbi, seú or simadan and tumba are the Afro-Caribbean forms of music specifically associated with Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. The lyrics to these forms of music are sung in Papiamentu, the largest Creole language spoken in the Caribbean by some 200,000 native speakers. The bulk of its vocabulary stems from Portuguese and Spanish, Dutch, French and English and features of West African phonology. Musical influences from the neighboring Caribbean islands have a long history. The Cuban musical connection on Curaçao dates as far back as the 1920’s when half of the male population of the island emigrated to Cuba to work the sugar plantations when Curaçao’s own rural existence was severely disrupted by drought, phosphate mining and an influx of foreign Caribbean labor to man the new Shell oil refinery. Many of the men came back later with the Cuban son, and typical Cuban instruments such as bongoes, the tres and marimbula from which a Curaçaoan-Cuban son tradition emerged. Other twentieth century immigrants brought merengue and bachata from the Dominican Republic, steel pan music from Trinidad and salsa from Puerto Rico. The coming of oil refineries to the Curaçao (Shell) and Aruba (Standard Oil) in the 1920s brought with it a large influx of foreign workers from all over the Caribbean. The new prosperity fostered an urban black culture on Curaçao and Aruba that catered to a growing night life culture and after World War II it brought in a local recording industry that produced 78s and 45s and a few 33 rpms, preserving the local music traditions. Such local record labels on Aruba and Curaçao as Hoyer, Musika, Padú, Caribia, Sabaneta and Bensara flourished into the 1950s before radio killed the local market for buying local production of local musicians. Subsequently the production of albums and later on the new technologies of digital recordings and cd production became and still are largely the province of the musicians themselves.

African Roots Musics of the ABC Islands


Tambú known as barí on Bonaire was originally a syncretic form of Afro-Curaçoan religion, similar to Cuban santeria and Brazilian condomblé. Heavily repressed by the Catholic church and the Dutch colonial authorities it has managed to survive into the present day, albeit in a much more truncated form. You could call tambú the Antillean blues, as it was also used by the slaves to express their sorrow, frustrations and hardship. Traditionally tambú was sung mostly by women though today many respectable male singers perform. The basic instruments of the tambú grandi are the tambú drum, and the agan (a piece of iron or ploughshare) or the chapi (hoe). It is accompanied by clapping and the songs contain often biting social commentary of what has happened the previous year. The distinctive African dance style of the tambú combines isolation of the body parts with elaborate hip gyrations. Despite the suggestive hip movements it follows a strict etiquette of no physical touching which adds to the erotic tension. Public tambú parties are limited to a few weeks at the end of the year.

Muzik di zumbi

Muzik di zumbi (literally music of the ghosts) referring to the time before electricity when musicians played at night in the countryside around barrel sized oil candles. Their flickering silhouettes made them appear as ghosts. The traditional ensemble consisted of the kachu (cowhorn), triangle, wiri (metal scraper), chapi (garden hoehead) and tambú (Curaçoan drum of goat skin nailed to barrels that once transported jenever). Many of their songs include the haunting mouth bow instrument of African origin and known as benta.


The traditional rhythms of Curaçao’s harvest festival, the seú, only live on in the annual folklore parade held in the city of Willemstad on Easter Monday. On Bonaire it is known as simadan. Seú/simadan used to be a festive march through the fields, as field workers took the crops of the harvest to the warehouses. The women carried baskets laden with produce on their heads while the men played drums and the chapi and blew on cow horns or conch shells. Everything moved in graceful dance steps, called wapa mimicking the movements used in planting and harvesting, while singing work songs. Once the harvesting was completed in one field they would go onto the next offering practical help and their joyous merrymaking.


Tumba is to the ABC islands what merengue is to the Dominican Republic, calypso to Trinidad and son to Cuba. It was originally a two part dance in 2/4 time (now in 6/8) which at the beginning of the twentieth century was the vehicle for songs of derision. The community which once put their gossip into songs, has now fostered professional song writers. In 1971 tumba was officially selected as the national style to be played at the annual Carnival Road March and Tumba festival. As in Trinidad, Curaçao and Aruba hold competitions to crown El Rey de Tumba (King of Tumba) all of which is preceded by parades and jump-ups. The finals are broadcast to the entire island group and there is even a live radio hook-up to the Netherlands where the large Antillean community can follow their favorites. Many of the island’s top bands who also play many other Latin and Caribbean styles, concentrate on the tumba rhythm or act as backing bands to guest vocalists who interpret their own compositions. (Scott Rollins)

Parts of this were included in the liner notes for ABC ISLAND PRIMER in Network Medien’s MUSICA NEGRA IN THE AMERICAS series No. 20.112